Friday, October 20, 2017

Access to Oxford

Today, Oxford is in the news because new data has revealed serious inequalities when it comes to diversity in the admissions process. The above tweet was followed by a lengthy threat where I tried to argue some points:

1. The representation of students from diverse backgrounds is a problem. I was not an undergraduate student at Oxford but my postgraduate experience equally had a lack of diversity in its postgraduate population (although this is somewhat better due to the international nature of postgraduate admissions). Thinking about my cohort and students I taught - they were predominantly white. And having moved to a London institution it has become painfully obvious to me how homogenous both the student and the staff population is at Oxford, now that I am at an institution that is genuinely diverse. The Oxbridge narrative is always that admissions is based on academic merit, which of course is true. But that fails to account for students who don't make it to the admission process.

2. This takes me to my second point. Students often feel that Oxbridge is not for them or their teachers believe it is not for their students. Common themes are that it will be too difficult for them or that students from diverse backgrounds won't fit into a white, elite stronghold. (40% of state secondary teachers rarely or never advise their brightest pupils to apply - often saying 'they wouldn't be happy there'.) Widening participation teams have a tough job to break down the barriers that stop students from apply (or teachers encouraging them). We need the educational system to help at pre-university level and allow students with potential to believe that they can apply.

3. (A side point about "not fitting in") This is a valid concern and Oxford could do more to dispel myths but also not to exaggerate. Promotional material online and in prospectuses need to be representative of the current student body and not aspirational. There is no point having photos of diverse undergraduate populations when you could be the only black student in your cohort (or even college!!). Initiatives such as the Oxford Black Alumni Network may be more powerful for illuminating the lived experiences of students at Oxford.

4. (A side, side point about not "fitting in") Staff representation is also critical. If Oxford wants to do something proactive and meaningful, then increasing the proportion of BME academic and professional services staff is critical. 

5. Back to my point about pre-university education. Targeting Oxford misses the fact that much needs to be done at an early stage to support students towards higher education (and of course, that doesn't just mean Oxbridge). However, by identifying issues in the secondary school system, that does not absolve institutions from responsibility to do more. My fear is that more millions will be thrown at widening participation as an ineffective bandaid. Of course, WP is important and valuable and absolutely necessary. But creative and innovative solutions are needed, as well as the ability to look to other models. Oxford has a habit of remaining entrenched in its ways. Certain sections of it will say: "it's lasted 800 years, why change?"). Looking towards best practice is happening, but very slowly. Lady Margaret Hall launched a Foundation Year programme to act as a springboard for students to enter a full degree at Oxford. This was inspired by and created in consultation with Trinity College Dublin's Trinity Access Programme which has been running since 1993. THAT'S 24 YEARS!!! I listened to Alan Rusbridger of Lady Margaret Hall talk about access this year and he was astonished that no one had looked to Ireland for inspiration. I'm astonished no one looked even closer to home as my current institution, Queen Mary University of London, also has an established foundation year programme. So Oxford can and should do more by thinking creatively and looking beyond its medieval walls. Ivy Leagues in the US can provide useful innovations.

6. This is a complex issue and one where there is not a single point of blame. However, I feel the need to stand up for my former colleagues at Oxford who are doing a phenomenal job. Too often, it is the "boots on the ground" people who are on low grades who do the lion share of work on access. They are going to feel pretty bad today and they shouldn't. They are working within internal and external structures and systems that work against what they are trying to do. What I want is for the VC of Oxford to stand up and applaud the work that they do, while acknowledging that a rethink may be needed about how to improve the current state of affairs. 

More than ever, we need leadership and ideas, not blank cheques. 

1 comment:

  1. Fiona, this is a really good post. Having worked at LMH for two years I'd be interested to hear more about why you think the Foundation Year is a better solution (while agreeing that there must be more imaginative ways to wider participation!). My concern was that - when established on a college rather than university level - it was throwing a lot of resources at a very small group of students, and seemed to be getting the college more symbolic publicity than making an actual difference. However, I can see the argument that it may encourage more students to apply to a particular college if they think the college actually wants them, although I'm not sure if that's (yet) been borne out in LMH's admissions figures. I certainly agree that it's crucial to target teachers, and I wonder if more could be spent on this.


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